Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

How the Liberal Humanist West Represents the Third World: Western Representations of Arabo-Islamic Women

Maria Degabriele

Before I begin my paper, I'd like to make at least a cursory reference to the incompatibility of the two terms: "Commonwealth" and "postcolonialism," as they relate to disparate world views. If a "postcolonial" world view is one which sees boundaries as being imaginative or fictive rather than geopolitical, then how can we naively use "the Commonwealth," without realising that each time we do so we are mobilizing the same ideologies that underscore the territorial conflicts that are going on right now, all over the world? I must also mention that I advisedly use terms like Third World, ethnic, East, and West as they construct a particular kind of subjectivity.

In this paper I'm going to look at visual and written Western representations of Arabo-Islamic women, and show how heavily they rely on Orientalist cliches.

What is most striking in discussions of postcolonialism, gender politics, and postmodernism is the relatedness of these issues. They spill over into each other so that questions of identity and representation, of self or other, become inseparable. This is especially evident in the West's construction of the so-called Third World,2 and, more importantly, the Third World woman.

For those countries which have been at least technically decolonized, the legacy of colonization remains. And so the category "postcolonial" is extremely problematic, especially when we speak about it from here, a colonial nation, and here, at a conference which is based at a museum which celebrates the maritime adventures of the British Empire, and here, at an American Catholic university. Perhaps the discomfort here can be used to keep in mind that the Empire lives on.

Despite these problems with postcolonialism, it is still a useful term of reference which can be used to construct different imaginative possibilities. The postcolonialism which is ascribed to texts is not somehow inside them. It is a feature which emerges as a critical practice. It is a reading practice, a critical strategy for interpretation. And it is this critical process which is as much postcolonial (or not) as the text in question. In other words, postcolonialism is about the intertextuality as evident in and amongst texts, and it is also an intertextual practice in itself.

There is a question I keep in front of me all the time: as a theorist, does my relation to my object of study symbolically reproduce the whole Orientalization process? It is useful to keep a dialogue open in order to keep the metastructure in mind.3 The dialogue is between me as a gendered, ethnic, classed subject, and my object. My object is one which has been: doubly gendered as female and feminized Oriental; ethnicised as Arabic, Oriental and Islamic; classed, yet portrayed, subtly or overtly, as underclass, and objectified as an other.

The process of contributing to a particular discourse somewhat parallels the practice of Orientalism, which is the practice of accumulating a textual bank4 of knowledge and then using this textual discourse as, simultaneously, the object of research and (rendering it as) the subject of the researcher. This positions the researcher as expert in/of that particular field. Said says that the Other was spoken for by the colonizer and this made it possible to first produce (through science) an object of knowledge, and then reproduce (through literature) an object of desire. The colonizing process was not initially geographically territorial but textual, where the text constituted the field (terrain).

My critique of texts about the position of Third World women was influenced by an ABC Radio National program in July 1991, called "Perspectives on Islam." It presents a complex and dynamic image of Muslims and shows that without the cliched visual codes of "the Orient" one cannot help but question the taken-for-grantedness of the very terms of reference upon which the Western media relies. In other words, the radio, as a medium, is pure voice. Our reception is not informed by whether or not the speaker is wearing a veil, or make-up, or whatever. And as such, this radio program provides a challenge which is different from the usual Orientalist representations we see.

The other example I will use is a National Geographic magazine. As Said explains, in the 19th century the Near Orient was a favourite place for Europeans to holiday. This led to different kinds of writing. "In all cases the Orient was there for the European observer."5 One of these forms of writing converted experience from the personal to the professional, as science, later to be enshrined in journalism. Another was as a deeply felt and personal aesthetic, as a pilgrimage to places and races of origin. The kind of writing that the National Geographic magazine uses expresses its central position in the USA, and its relations with the rest of the world. It typically features animals or natives on the front cover, and it offers to "[s]atisfy your curiosity about the world for less than $3.60 a month!"6

The particular issue I will use shows how it represents the main differences between being Eastern and Western in purely visual codes which celebrate the exotic. The Oriental woman is pictured as veiled, decorated, and spacially located somewhere in the Middle East.7 While the Saudi woman at Oxford University is shown dressed up in European-style clothes, she is made-up and laughing, carrying her books to the epicentre of knowledge.8

For women in colonized countries there is a compounding of stereotypes to fight against, not only domestically with social stereotypical expectations, but also from the outside, with expectations from other feminists. Much scholarship examines the escalation of repression of the ethnic or Oriental or Third World woman. Many non-Western women are saying that Western feminism is reading the postcolonial woman in the same patronizing, dominating, repressive ways that women everywhere have been fighting against for centuries.

As Leila Ahmed says: a hundred years ago, with imperialism, Arabic women were told to take off their veils, African women were told to put on more clothes, while Western women were fainting in corsets.9 The point Ahmed makes is that while the West was "civilizing" the rest of the world, its own women were being treated in unenviable ways. Western Christian women were being held up as models, as good wives, mothers and nurses who gave birth to and nurtured new citizens, and were responsible for men's morals.10

Just as there are as many Islams as there are Islamic nations, so too are there as many political positions for Muslim women. They range from the conservative to the radical. Tehira Aftab, a historian from Lahore University, Pakistan, explains how Islamic society does not have the Western concept of equality between men and women.11 Woman was not created from a man's spare rib. She is separate and responsible for herself, not for man.

In her analysis of sexual inequality in Muslim countries, Fatima Mernissi sees the liberation of Muslim countries from imperial domination as occurring through full use of these nations' human resources, so as to boost national productivity.12 It is not Islam or the Koran which prevents women from being fully engaged in the public spheres of education and paid professional work. The problem is the men who have the power to interpret, to legislate, and to maintain the status quo in their favour.

So the problem is not Islam, but patriarchal social and political practice. Islamic feminists are fighting against different forms of essentialism which come from men's interpretation and enforcement of Islam. The centrality of the Koran as a text which cannot be interpreted by women is being challenged via so-called marginal texts, women's texts.

Any discourse which claims neutrality or universality must be scrutinized. Just as science sees itself as being made from the raw texts of nature, we still use marginal knowledges as mere data, texts which form this discourse called postcolonialism. Said says that the Other was spoken for by the colonizer and this made it possible to first produce (through science) an object of knowledge, and then reproduce (through literature) an object of desire.

At least now there is a space emerging where we can repeat these marginal discourses, taking them seriously in their own right, and working counter to the dominant and official theories of History, Anthropology and Social Science.13

Third World women have often commented that Western feminism plays the traditional anthropological role of describing Other native women and prescribing ways in which they should liberate themselves from the brutalities of family, men, children, religion, and the State. The blindness to its own ethnocentrism has led gender politics into crisis. Trinh T. Minh-ha says:

to simply denounce Third World women's oppression with notions and terms made to reflect or fit into Euro-American women's criteria of equality is to abide by ethnographic ideology . . . which depends on the representation of a coherent cultural subject as source of scientific knowledge to explain a native culture and reduces every gendered activity to a sex-role stereotype. Feminism in such a context may well mean "westernisation"14

In Beyond The Veil Mernissi also shows how the liberation of Muslim women from personal, social and political repression is crucial. But liberation does not mean westernisation, as that would be just another form of repression.

Poststructuralism, feminism and postcolonialism work with and around each other, informing concepts like hegemony, nationalism, cultural identity, gender and sexuality, authority, and writing. And it is because these fields of study are so comprehensive that one has always got to go back and look at the assumptions they are based on.

Said's Orientalism describes how Western scholarship and colonization flourished together as exploration, discovery and conquest established what was defined as, seen as, utilized as a primary text (written and/or geographic). So the Other was constituted not only as the content of the scholarly text, but also as the text itself, as that which represents some remote imaginary object which cannot, shall not, speak for itself. The expertise which developed in the writing of these texts displayed deeper knowledge and greater understanding than the object either understood about itself or was able to express about itself. So the field, as created and administered by the authorities, became self explanatory. But, of course, the self which it purported to explain was a reflection of the colonizer. The colonized never spoke for itself; it was always spoken for. The ideas about the Orient produced the very objects which they purported merely to describe or explain.

Similarly, when Arabo-Islamic women are depicted by the West they are often portrayed as sub-subjects, pariahs who do not exist as acting subjects. If they ever are depicted they are constructed as having no voice (except to wail in mourning), no body (except that which is mutilated and shrouded); their eyes are blackened, their hands and feet are dyed. They are constituted as a literal embodiment of lacking. They are sites upon and within which ritual is carried out. This is how Western discursive institutions, including feminism, have depicted Arabic women in general, Islamic women in particular. These punitive institutions share very similar ideological positions with the public institutions which govern Arabic societies. Said says that "the Orient that appears in Orientalism, then, is a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire."15

Leila Ahmed explains that ethnocentric Western feminists see Arabic women as backwards and ignorant and locked into some form of patriarchy that Western women left behind hundreds of years ago. So, on top of fighting the women's battle that women everywhere have to fight, Arabic women are also fighting this massive racism from the West. Ahmed says that Western feminism has brought in everything that Western men have said about the Third World. And what we have to move away from is a single androcentric model of how to be in the world. This must happen in both the East and the West. There is no denying that there is oppression in the East, but it is being constructed in the West in a racially determined way. That is, Western portrayals suggest that the combination of Islam and being Arabic is itself responsible for ignorance, poverty, repression, and aggression.

Orientalism refers to the Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient (which is depicted as not being a free-thinking and free-acting subject). "European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self."16

The cover article of this National Geographic magazine mentioned earlier, "Women of Arabia," is written by the American wife of a Saudi, who lived in Arabia in the 1940s. While the article is an interesting report on the status of Saudi Arab women, it still frames them as having more or less evolved from a primitive past which lurks beneath a flimsy surface of modernity (Westernism). The contextual framing sets up the subject in a very particular way. Throw-away phrases like "at home in two worlds" (445) betray the simple East/West binary paradigm, which makes no allowances for a self-constituted subjectivity. And to describe the wearing of the veil as an "ancient custom" is clearly to represent a current practice as backward. Said says that the Orient existed as a set of values, and anything of value is firmly located in the past, as an archive. The Arabs of the (then) present weren't utilising this storehouse of knowledge, they were/are barbarians, so it fell to the Europeans to make it flourish.17

There are many accounts about the wearing of the veil. As Malti-Douglas says in her account of gender and discourse in Arabo-Islamic writing, the issue of whether or not women wear veils and what that is supposed to mean is an endless source of fascination for Western ethnographers. And she adds: "women and their role become a stick with which the West can beat the East."18 While Arab women are becoming increasingly politically and socially active, Western women are still wondering how someone behind a veil can constitute her own individuality. As Said says "what better instrument of intimidation than a sovereign Western Ego?"19

Another example of the Western press's conflation of Islam, "Arabicness," and the veil appears in a very recent issue of The Weekly Telegraph:

Iranian women are beautiful, with very strong features, and manage to convey a great deal through the eyes, even when the mouth is covered. I like the imposed modesty of the chador, because one feels that the women are not really modest at all. They stride along in quite a masculine way and look very boldly at you as they pass. They give a much stronger impression of playful flirtatiousness than women do in the West.20

Even behind the veil, women are reduced to their apparent sexuality. The eye of the Western observer projects his own "playful flirtatiousness" onto the eyes of the object under scrutiny.

Subjectivity begins with the body. Any body which is seen or defined as being different to central notions of Self, is automatically constructed as Other. The specificity of being woman and ethnically different from the Western humanist vision of "liberated woman" can only be maintained as long as discursive and cultural practices are determined by the sexual and ethnic differences which the practices themselves project. And so there is a disjunction between the speaking subject (the ethnographer) and the subject that is being spoken for (the oriental). In this mass of discourses, what separates one discourse from another is usually a complex set of contradictions. Signifiers like "woman," "ethnic," "Eastern," or "native," can articulate meaning only when they are positioned in subjective relation to a given discourse. And when it comes to ethnicity and gender the dominant discourse is still Western humanism.

Fanon says:

Bourgeois ideology . . . which is the proclamation of an essential equality between men, manages to appear logical in its own eyes by inviting the sub-men to become human, and to take as their prototype Western humanity as incarnated in the Western bourgeoisie.21

Said examines the alliance between cultural work, political tendencies, the state, and the specific realities of domination. He analyses the authority of Orientalism, as a dominating practice. Authority is a strategic location wherein a text's exteriority - through its representations - relates to other texts. He reminds us that a text's actuality is its exteriority. A text about the Orient is not a transparent window through which one can see a pure History of Islam.22

I hope that this discussion has opened up problems, especially those around the relationships between feminism and Orientalism. And in this particular field of postcolonialism, theory appears to be not all that far removed from the practical question of who is the enunciating subject. In the samples we've looked at, it looks like certain forms of representation, which enjoy wide circulation, continue the process of colonialism by other means.

Murdoch University

Other References

Ahmed, Akbar S., Postmodernism and Islam, London: Routledge, 1992.

Guha, Ranajit & Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, Selected Subaltern Studies, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Mitchell, Juliet, Women - The Longest Revolution, London: Virago, 1984.

Shaaban, Bouthaina, Both Right and Left Handed, London: The Women's Pr ess, 1988.

Worton, Michale & Still, Judith, (eds), Intertextuality: Theories and Practices, Manchester, 1990.


2 For a discussion of Third Worldism, see Maria Degabriele, "Trafficking Culture in Postcolonial Literature: Postcolonial Fiction and Salman Rushdie's Imaginary Homelands (1991)," SPAN Double Issue 34 & 35, Oct 92/May 93 60-70.

3 See Steven Webster, 1982, "Dialogue and Fiction in Ethnography", in Dialectical Anthropology, Vol 7, 1982.

4 I use "bank" in order to invoke meanings of accumulated exchange value, investment, interest.

5 Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 1978) 158.

6 Membership Acceptance Form. It also says "If you're a traveler who'd like to see more of the world . . . an aspiring adventurer who thrives on excitement . . . a concerned citizen who wants to know more about today's headline issues . . . National Geographic will keep you informed and entertained as no other magazine can."

7 Fig. 1, National Geographic , 172:4 (October 1987), cover.

8 Fig. 2, National Geographic , 172:4 (October 1987),

9 ABC Radio National, July 1991.

10 Anne Summers, in Damned Whore and God's Police, 1975, examines the position of women in colonial Australia.

11 ABC Radio National, July 1991.

12 Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil, (London: Al Saqi Books, 1975).

13 Alec McHoul, "Notes on Foucault", provided for the Humanities foundation course, "Structure, Thought and Reality," Murdoch University, Murdoch, WA, 1987.

14 Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989) 106.

15 Said, Orientalism, 202 - 3.

16 Said, Orientalism, 3.

17 Said, Orientalism, 85.

18 Fadwa Malti-Douglas, Woman's body, Woman's Word, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991) 3.

19 Said, Orientalism, 193.

20 The Weekly Telegraph (72. November 25 - 6, 1992). Editor's comment: It is also worth noting here that since Iranians are not Arabs, the passage is yet another example of the tendency to see all the peoples of the Middle East in the image of Western myths of "Arabia."

21 Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1963, 163.

22 Said, Orientalism, 59.

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